Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Design for adaptability

Adam Greenfield takes a closer look at designing for adaptability and notions that "seem to be pointing us is towards a place where all of "our" painstakingly garnered knowledge about what makes an interface tick fades in importance compared to the user's ability to order their operating environment as suits them: if they prefer cutesy animated icons and red-on-blue text, if this helps them work more efficiently or simply find more joy in the experience, then so be it."

Well, yes and no. This reminds me a bit of when I argue for different ways of doing sociology and sociologists respond that my strategies will render our discipline obsolete. To this, I always respond that our discipline will be reconfigured, not obliterated. Ditto with design.

If I am designing a teapot, I might choose a shape that can also serve as a flower vase - but that does not absolve me from designing a teapot that doesn't drip when pouring tea. And it's the same with software applications or interfaces. We can provide the means for users to adapt them, but that doesn't mean that we don't design something useful on its own. After all, years of research and professional experience have indeed helped us understand "what makes an interface tick" and there is no reason to throw out that knowledge.

The key to designing for adaptability will involve a balancing act between what designers consider good design and the ability of a user to *also* create their idea of good design. I would think that an adaptable interface is only useful once a stage for adaptation has been built. Some users will never want - or need - to adapt a product, and they should be given a well-designed and useful one. So, in the process of designing a stable base product, designers will also need to build a flexible "surface" - and here I envision something much more flexible than a simple "skin".

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